After one of the toughest weeks I can remember in the Verizon IndyCar Series, it was fitting that the championship finished the way it did. I’ll go ahead and get my gloating out of the way. Over three weeks ago, when we did our most recent One Take Only with Paul Dalbey as a guest – we gave our picks for the championship. Paul picked Juan Montoya to win the championship, John picked Graham Rahal and I chose Scott Dixon. My logic was that Rahal would fade, Montoya and Power had not been on the podium since May and Scott Dixon would do what he always does – drive cleanly, stay up front and let the others make the mistakes. That’s exactly how it played out.
The GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma started out as do most races at Sonoma – dull. Once the everyone made it through Turn Two, the field spread out and was somewhat stagnant. Pole-sitter Will Power stayed out front, followed by Josef Newgarden, who started next to Power on the front row. Montoya was in fourth and riding comfortably to cruise to a finish solid enough to win the championship.
After a round of pit stops put Power back just in front of Montoya – things got crazy following a re-start. Somehow, Montoya clipped the back-end of Power and spun him around, bringing out another full-course yellow. In the process, Montoya damaged his front-wing enough that he needed to pit and change it out. Suddenly, Montoya and Power were at the back of the field. Graham Rahal was not having a good day, but in the ongoing graphic of “As They Run” – Rahal was within ten points of Montoya. Rahal never got any closer.
Outstanding pit work and superb driving put Scott Dixon in the lead. For a while, it looked as if Dixon may even cruise to the race win and the championship. While the race win never seemed much in doubt towards the end, the championship started looking like it would slip through Dixon’s fingers and there was nothing he could do about it. Montoya was making his patented charge up through the field. Seemingly stuck in twelfth for most of the closing laps, Montoya was suddenly in eighth. All Dixon could do was win the race, lead the most laps and hope things fell his way.
If Dixon won the race, Montoya had to finish fifth or better to win the championship. Riding in eighth with the laps dwindling down, it was looking bleak for Montoya. Then suddenly, Sébastien Bourdais punted Rahal going into the hairpin. Rahal’s resulting spin moved Montoya up to seventh. Then Race Control issued a well-deserved drive-through penalty for Bourdais, which moved Montoya to sixth.
Suddenly, the “As They Run” box showed Dixon and Montoya tied in points, but by winning the race – Dixon would have won three races to Montoya’s two. That would be the tie-breaker. All that stood between Montoya and the go-ahead fifth position was Ryan Briscoe, who was nursing worn tires. Briscoe had been unceremoniously dumped once by Team Penske and twice by Chip Ganassi Racing, the respective teams of Montoya and Dixon. Would Briscoe battle Montoya or let him by? Whatever he did would hand one of his former employers the championship.
As it turned out, Montoya never got that close. His car was not handling well, either. He managed to cut the margin to Briscoe in half, but that was it. Montoya ran out of laps as he chased Briscoe to the line after Dixon had won the race. Not only did Dixon win his third race of the season, he won his fourth Verizon IndyCar championship for his career.
As Dixon celebrated in disbelief, Montoya was left to ponder what might have been. For fifteen races, dating back to the season-opener at St. Petersburg – Juan Montoya led the championship. With two-thirds of the season complete, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Montoya would cap off his second Indianapolis 500 win in May, with his second IndyCar championship in only four US open-wheel seasons.
When Graham Rahal won at Mid-Ohio earlier this month, Montoya’s once-substantial lead had shrunk to only nine points. He came out of the ill-fated Pocono race with a more comfortable thirty-four point lead and seemed destined to leave northern California with the Astor Challenge trophy. But one little incident between two Penske teammates cost Roger Penske his third IndyCar championship, since leaving CART for the 2002 season.
With so much on the line, I can safely say that I’ve never seen such a riveting IndyCar race at Sonoma. Had there been five races left in the season, this may have been a boring race. Once he got up front, Scott Dixon was never threatened. But with the championship on the line and having it not settled until after Dixon crossed the line and won the race – I was exhausted afterwards.
After the emotional week that the entire IndyCar community went through, The Verizon IndyCar Series needed a feel-good race like this. Whetherr you were pulling for Dixon, Montoya or even Josef Newgarden to win the championship – you have to admit that it was a great finish – even if it didn’t come out the way you wanted.
Justin Wilson will be buried this week in his home country of England. After celebrating Scott Dixon’s championship, the series will mourn and remember Justin Wilson again. Then everyone will regroup throughout another long offseason, which we know will be at least a few weeks shorter than last year’s. Yesterday’s race was a tremendous high note to head into the offseason. That was the race that IndyCar needed.
TV Coverage: The “A-Team” of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy were in the booth, with four pit reporters and Robin Miller. Given the circumstances, I thought this was NBCSN’s best performance of the year. Diffey was his usual exuberant self, but was correct as he kept reminding us that this could go down to the wire. It did.
It was appropriate that most of the pre-race show dealt with the aftermath of the fallen Justin Wilson. It wasn’t overly dramatic or over the top. Instead, there were tasteful and moving tributes as well as one-on-one conversations with Wilson’s peers.
Surprisingly, one of the best moments came with Robin Miller’s tribute. I say surprisingly only because Robin Miller has seen so much tragedy in racing over his long career, you wonder how much another one fazes him. But the high praise he offered Wilson spoke volumes, coming from someone who has seen so much and is not given to over-dramatize a situation. Like him or hate him (I like him), you knew this was genuine if Robin Miller said it. Hearing such praise coming from Robin Miller confirmed what everyone else had said all week. See Miller’s tribute here.
Aside from their outstanding in-race coverage, give credit to NBCSN for sticking with the Championship trophy ceremony. Overall, NBCSN capped off another great season of IndyCar coverage.
Pre-Race Ceremonies: This was a definite mixed bag. There were more Justin Wilson tributes for those in attendance that ended with a very touching and emotional playing of the U.K. National Anthem “God Save the Queen” in honor of Wilson’s British heritage. I don’t tear up easily, but that almost got to me. Unfortunately, that stirring moment was followed by the comic relief that was the singing of our own National Anthem.
I’ve come under fire for criticizing singers supposedly doing their best to sing what is truly a difficult piece to perform. So much so that I have tried to refrain from any comment unless it is that bad. Yesterday’s was that bad.
Some have suggested I should perform it if I think I could do a better job. After hearing what may be the worst rendition I’ve heard to date, I’ll be glad to apply. It doesn’t take much talent at all to improve on the tonal qualities of a bleating goat, as she completely slaughtered The Star-Spangled Banner. Why these young “artists” feel the need to put their own spin on such a stirring anthem is beyond me.
In Need of a Shave: I was glad to see that James Hinchcliffe abandoned his Paul Bunyan look and trimmed the beard he has been cultivating all summer. If I’m not mistaken, the Mayor of Hinchtown had not shaved since his life-threatening accident in May. It was beginning to look ridiculous. At some point before Sunday, Hinchcliffe trimmed his growth and he now sports his familiar close-cropped stubble. I’m not normally a fan of that look, but I remember seeing Hinch when he was completely clean-shaven for about a day a couple of years ago. It was not a good look. He looked like he was in the eighth grade. The beard actually works for him.
Now that he’s finished with that razor, he needs to pass it over to David Letterman, who appears he quit shaving about the time he quit his show – also in late May. With his red Steak ‘n Shake shirt and his thick white beard, it felt like they were interviewing St. Nick. Of course, Christmas trees will be up in stores after this weekend, so I guess that’s appropriate. Unless he’s planning on being a mall Santa this fall, Dave needs to shave.
Seriously? From the sour grapes department, comes this. Juan Montoya was predictably unhappy in the post-race press conference. I get that. When you throw away a championship that you lead for over five months in the very last race, it can be frustrating.
But his comments were nothing more than that of a poor loser when he said “Dixon had a s**t season and had one good race”. Seriously? This was after Montoya complained about Dixon benefiting from winning a double-points race. Keep in mind, Montoya won the only other double-points race – the Indianapolis 500. For those keeping score, it’s already been calculated that if all races paid the same, Dixon would have still won the championship.
Ganging Up: Several times in yesterday’s broadcast, it was mentioned how teammates were ganging up to protect a teammate going for the championship. Nowhere was that more apparent than when they were ganging up on Graham Rahal. Think about it; Power and Montoya were the Penske drivers with a real shot at the championship. Not only was second-place Rahal to deal with them, but the other two Penske drivers that were no longer in contention. Ganassi had three drivers fighting for Scott Dixon. Rahal had no one.
Teammates could either block or intimidate Rahal at any time. Charlie Kimball, Sebastian Saavedra, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud were all charged with essentially being something akin to a goon in hockey. They were not to run Rahal off the road, but they could certainly make life miserable for him if they needed to.
As it turned out, such tactics were not needed. Rahal did not have a good car and was never much of a threat at all. But it had to be unnerving for him to know that he could face that at any time if he were to be a threat for the championship.
Unlucky Pits: Josef Newgarden has had bad pit stops for much of the season. His luck continued yesterday, but you really can’t put any of the blame on his crew. On his first stop, he and Will Power pitted together and appeared to be headed back out together. That was before Simon Pagenaud entered the scene.
As a courtesy to his teammate, Power – Pagenaud stopped in the middle of pit lane to allow Power to exit cleanly. The problem was, he was effectively blocking Newgarden from exiting. Newgarden ultimately had to run through another pit and run over the outstretched air-hose. As they have done all year, Race Control chose to deal with it midweek. Surely, no penalty will be assessed to Newgarden for running over the hose.
On his second stop, Newgarden stalled the car after it was serviced promptly. For whatever reason, the fuel spillage caught fire and had to be extinguished. Then the car would not re-fire, for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the car started, but Newgarden re-joined the race in twenty-third place. He ultimately finished twenty-first.
Shout-Out: A tip of the hat needs to go to Mikhail Aleshin, who returned to the cockpit of an IndyCar for the first time this weekend, after his horrific practice crash at last year’s season finale at Fontana.
Aleshin’s return did not get a whole lot of air time. In fact, I’m not sure he was mentioned more than once on Sunday. But in a one-off effort in a third car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, qualified fourteenth and finished a respectable tenth. To fare that well after such a long layoff and the first time driving the new aero kits, deserves some praise, I would think.
All in all: I cannot stress how much IndyCar needed this race to turn out like it did. After all of the the emotions and then all of the predictable bad press that followed later in the week – this series needed to put together a good show and a successful race weekend. They won on all accounts.
And it also confirmed what we have known for many years – Scott Dixon is one talented driver. By winning his fourth title, he now has as many as Bourdais, Mario Andretti and Dario Franchitti. Only AJ Foyt has more, with seven.
Dixon just completed his fourteenth season with Chip Ganassi. At thirty-five, he is still relatively young. Hopefully, he will drive for many more years. Everyone should take it in and realize we are watching greatness. I think most fans didn’t appreciate just how good Dario Franchitti was until he was forced to retire. Don’t make that same mistake with Dixon.
As we head into the offseason, there are more questions than answers. Safety will be debated as it always should be. The schedule has yet to be announced. We have been teased that there could be a few surprises. After already losing Fontana and (probably) NOLA for next year, let’s hope these are pleasant surprises. But first and foremost is Justin Wilson’s funeral. That should keep everything in perspective as we move forward into the offseason and towards next season. But we will move on and heal, because we just have to. Yesterday was a major step in the right direction.